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Will McIlroy grow more consistent?

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- As birthdays go, 24 is not exactly a milestone. It is nowhere near old-man status and a good bit removed from teen talk, a time where someone at the outset of his career is perhaps learning the ways of the world.

Put like that, Rory McIlroy offers some interesting perspective about another candle to be added to the cake Saturday.

He clearly hasn't been able to ease into life as a professional golfer, now six years into his time at a high level.

And for a guy who has already amassed a fortune and gets to play golf for a living, the transition from 23 to 24 certainly has had its wrinkle-inducing moments.

In 2013 alone, McIlroy has lived through the hype surrounding his new, lucrative endorsement deal with Nike, the negativity surrounding his poor start to the year with new clubs, a controversial withdrawal from the Honda Classic, losing the No. 1 ranking to Tiger Woods and a lackluster Masters.

Yes, there was a second-place finish in San Antonio, with some glimmers of the McIlroy who sprang to the world's top spot in 2012, when he took his second major championship by eight shots while winning five times worldwide.

A bit crazy since his last birthday? That's like saying McIlroy has a few curls in his hair.

"Yeah, I'm back to what I'm supposed to do, which is playing golf and trying to win golf tournaments," McIlroy said Friday when asked whether things had, perhaps, calmed down a bit for him. "There was quite a bit of hoopla going on around me for the first couple of months of the year, but once that settled down, it lets me focus on what I need to do, which is playing golf."

If it could only be so easy.

Despite his early-year struggles, McIlroy remains the best bet to follow Woods as the game's top superstar. It is unfair to expect him to come anywhere close to those numbers, but he has won two majors at such a young age and money titles on both sides of the Atlantic, so the possibilities remain intriguing.

McIlroy added a somewhat disappointing 1-under-par 71 Friday at Quail Hollow to his opening 67, nonetheless putting himself right in the mix heading into the weekend at the Wells Fargo Championship, the place where he won his first PGA Tour event three years ago, shooting a final-round 62.

It put him in a good place -- mentally and on the scoreboard -- as he continues to trend in the right direction after enduring his early-season crisis, similar to one he dealt with last summer. Some forget that after getting to No. 1 with his victory at the Honda Classic in 2012, McIlroy bombed at the Masters and had a poor stretch that saw him miss four cuts in five events, including his defense of the U.S. Open.

Then he rattled off that eight-shot win at the PGA Championship, captured two FedEx Cup playoff events at the Deutsche Bank Championship and BMW Championship and won the European Tour's season-ending event in Dubai.

McIlroy has since acknowledged that he didn't prepare properly for the start of the year. No big deal -- except he was trotted out as Nike's newest superstar, using the company's golf clubs and then playing poorly for the better part of four tournaments.

Now he's contending again, for the second time in three tournaments. His name is back up on the leaderboard where we had become accustomed to seeing it. Had a few more putts dropped on some sketchy greens at Quail Hollow, he very well might be the 36-hole leader.

"I think it's big strides because my game wasn't where it should have been at all at the start of the year," McIlroy said. "Got into a couple of bad habits on my swing, and it just took me a little bit of time to get out of them. But now that I feel like I'm swinging it well. This is the sort of golf I expect to play."

In a way, McIlroy faces an unfair journey, especially one that involves comparisons to Woods. It is hard to envision anyone as consistent -- ever -- as Woods has been through his 14-major, 77-win PGA Tour career.

A telling reminder: Woods has missed nine cuts in nearly 17 years on the PGA Tour; McIlroy has missed eight in less than five.

So the down cycle that McIlroy endured earlier this year should probably be expected from time to time. Last year, he got into a bad way around the time of the Players Championship -- at a venue that he said doesn't suit him -- and didn't come out of it until early August. Then he went on a tear.

Could the same cycle be repeating?

McIlroy is unsure. After all, he didn't see that great run at the end of 2012 coming either.

"I don't think you do," he said. "Of course you want to try and get in contention and try to win tournaments, but if you get comfortable with your game over a period of time and it's a great feeling, and I wish I had that feeling all the time. But you're not going to play that well week in and week out. I guess it's managing it when it doesn't quite feel as good as then."

A victory won't get McIlroy back to No. 1 this week. But it would be a nice way to celebrate a birthday that, depending on the perspective, can make him seem old or young.